I recently conducted a catechetical session for a parish that is planning to build a new baptismal font. To begin, I asked those who came—a rather large group of about ninety adults and teenagers—to recall a memorable experience of baptism they either took part in or witnessed. Everybody had one! They shared warm, enthusiastic memories with each other, and some of the stories were shared with the large group too. This was clearly a group of people who loved their parish and had a high regard for the sacraments and for the church.
Their response to the next exercise, however, was telling. I asked for a show of hands in answer to the following questions: What stood out in their memory? The people? The action? The words? The emotions? The water? Hands went up for each and every item—except the water. The water did not stand out for anybody in that room, among all the good memories they cherished.
Clearly, they needed a new font.
But their response to the exercise got me thinking. Where are our powerful memories of baptismal water—that primary “sign” of the foundational sacrament of the whole Christian life? If our sacramental system is going to survive in this century as a living organism and not just a museum piece, there has to be a core of real-life experience at the center of it. Are we etching the sacraments in the deep places of the soul, in today’s church?
Water has been for me the centerpiece of a whole liturgical experience that qualifies as “awe-inspiring” or “spine-tingling” as Edward Yarnold, SJ, once called it. I can still see the light shimmering on the water of the glorious font at St. Paul the Apostle church in New York as we gathered around it for Easter Vigil baptisms. The completely drenched appearance of the newly-baptized at St. John Cathedral in Milwaukee comes to my mind; I can see them dripping, smiling, triumphant. I remember the astonishing depths of the water in which my husband-to-be was baptized at St. Ignatius Loyola church in New York—he was immersed in the water three times, each time diving in deeper than the last, until finally the pastor and sponsor thought they’d lost him! These are powerful memories. For me, the stories of creation and crossing the Red sea found a touchstone in the waters of these fonts—waters that were breathtakingly beautiful, dangerous, and a place where miracles happen.
You don’t get the same effect standing around a punch bowl. Yet I’m afraid that something the size of a punchbowl, or even smaller, is what most Catholics call the font.
What do you remember of baptism at this year’s Easter Vigil?
5 thoughts on “Awe Inspiring Rites?”
Thanks for this wonderful website, these resources, and in particular for these comments. We too are lavish in our use of water in my parish. This year, we took particular time to prepare our catechumen for baptism by walking around the font and discussing the symbolism. After he emerged from the font at the Vigil and changed into dry clothes and his white garment, he asked me to discard the “old” wet clothing he had worn going into the baptismal water. The clothes represented for him the life he left behind in the baptismal water. The expression on his face as the water cascaded over him in the font is my favorite memory of this Easter.
We had 4 people initiated at the Easter Vigil. I had told them to please choose immersion for baptism, but our priest said they could choose total immersion, or sit on the step of the pool and have water poured over them. I was like, “Noooooo!” Three chose to have water poured over in lieu of immersion. This past Sunday the person who was baptized by immersion described the experience. I think the other three did not experience the death of immersion and rising that this person experienced. Baptism for them was, “Yeah, I didn’t get very wet!” The whole meaning of the sacrament was lost to them, whereas the person who was baptized by immersion, totally got it. Her old life was gone!
Our congregation is invited to stand near the font to witness the baptisms. Father had each elect face the crowd as he fully immersed them and the look of joy on the crowd’s faces mirrored the newly baptized, causing them to break into applause and shouts of joy after each one of our 5 baptisms! Being his 1st year in the parish Father was also very excited that we had suitable attire for him to stand in the font. The water is a very memorable symbol for our whole parish at the Vigil.
My vivid memory was the first weekend we celebrated baptisms at the weekend Masses. We had just installed our new immersion baptismal pool which replaced a plastic bowl on a stand just in time for the Easter Vigil. That night 30 adults were drenched with holy water and then escorted out the side door to be dried off and dressed in their new Easter clothes. Everything worked out well…just one tip: do not use hair blowers unless you know it won’t cause your circuit breakers to cut off!
When we did use it a few weeks later at a Sunday mass, instead of people complaining, they were standing trying to get a better view as each baby, fully naked, was place into the warm upper pool and “immersed” with lots of water.
This all happened after several years of preparation among the clergy, RCIA and assembly. Not only did we get a family to pay for the pool, but we learned what “fullness of symbols” really entails: bread, wine, oil, water.
This was back in 1996 and people are still talking about it. Once you go to immersion, there is no going back!
I would love to have a really deep font in the front of church but we are a pretty small country church. However, my solution was purchasing as large and deep of a pond in well structured plastic as I could find on Amazon. It is only used at Easter. I created a tailored navy skirting and it looks great. People really know something is happening. We talk immersion early and often and tell them why it is preferred. This year we had 7 baptisms and even though our new priest (first solo assignment) gave them the option the morning of their baptism, NONE of them turned down full immersion. After the first baptism, when the woman, about 60, jumped up and raised her arms and shouted AMEN there was great applause for her and everyone who followed. The best thing was the teens who were singing in the choir loft whose jaws were dropped in awe and wonder at what they were witnessing. It was an amazing night. Each person baptized commented after words how warm and enveloping the water was and how buoyed up they felt. I would love if it were deep enough for the priest to be in and someone truly plunge, but I haven’t found anything portable enough to do that with. About $250 and good storage place will do this solution. It is worth the bother!